As homelessness increases in Fairfax County, affected residents can use revamped county resources to cope with extreme summer heat.
The county will activate its extreme heat response when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory, excessive heat watch or excessive heat warning.
As part of the response, 47 county facilities are now designated as cooling centers and will provide supplies, such as water, sunscreen, insect repellant, body wipes, and bus passes, according to a presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ health and human services committee last week.
“Like in previous years, all county facilities that are open to the public can be used by residents to come in for cooling,” Jill Clark, health and human services policy and planning manager with Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, said in the presentation.
The cooling center facilities include all libraries and community centers. In those locations, staff will be prepared to welcome residents in need, and there will be supplies and seating in designated spaces.
Supplies will also be available at shelters and drop-in centers and from outreach workers. Most of the supplies are single-use and/or lightweight and portable. The decision to supply single-use items, among other parts of the plan, came from feedback from a September 2022 survey of 81 unsheltered residents.
“In the responses, you could hear the challenges they experienced both in terms of discomfort and real negative health effects from the extreme heat, including nausea, shortness of breath, exhaustion, asthma attacks, inability to eat as well as sunburns and rashes,” said Tom Barnett, deputy director of housing and community development in the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.
The county will also aim to better notify unsheltered residents about heat advisories by using a new dedicated channel of Fairfax Alerts.
“We learned through the unsheltered residents survey that most respondents actually have a phone with internet access, and actually prefer getting information about resources and heat alerts via text messages and emails,” Barnett said.
To help residents get to cooling centers, drop-in centers or weather-related overflow sites, the county will offer free Fairfax Connector bus passes in the form of 3,000 postcards that cover two rides each. In addition, the county will provide pre-loaded Transportation Options, Programs & Services (TOPS) cards to assist unsheltered residents who cannot access Fairfax Connector buses.
These changes came out of recommendations from a workgroup that formed in August 2022 in response to concerns raised by the Fairfax County NAACP. The board received the workgroup’s recommendations in a March memorandum.
“The work group and its four committees included a robust membership across many different county departments as well as key partners and representatives from the homeless service providers, the faith community and advocates,” Barnett said.
The county saw a 10% increase — 119 people — in people experiencing homelessness for an estimated total of 1,310 people.
“In many ways the connection between housing and homelessness are logical, as homelessness is essentially defined as not having housing,” said Tom Barnett, deputy director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “Much of the work of a homeless system is helping people in housing crisis find and secure new housing opportunities that match their means and unique needs.”
Barnett said the increase in evictions, in turn, came at the same time as the end of federal and state eviction moratoria.
“The latest trends in evictions coincide with the ending of federal and state eviction moratoria and declining federal resources for emergency rental assistance from pandemic-era funding,” Barnett said. “The federal eviction moratorium ended in August 2021 and the Virginia eviction moratorium ended on June 30, 2022.”
According to the county’s eviction dashboard, there were 2,674 formal writs of eviction issued between June 1, 2020 and the end of 2022. Before Virginia’s moratorium ended, there were only two months in that period with 100 or more writs, but those numbers soared to 280 in October, 317 in November and 248 in December.
Barnett noted that some households are “evicted informally” and can’t be tracked.
In 2021, the county established a Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program that assisted households who couldn’t pay rent or utilities during the pandemic, allowing thousands to stay in their homes when they might otherwise have been evicted.
A new program was set up to cover some of those expiring benefits, but Barnett says the $14 million funding that program only accounts for a fraction of the $95 million in federal assistance provided over the last three years.
According to Barnett:
In anticipation of expiring federal benefits, [Health and Human Services] created the ERA Bridge Program in May 2022 and began accepting applications on July 1, 2022. The goal of this program is to keep significant resources in the community while beginning to transition to a new post-COVID operating and funding level still to be determined. The ERA Bridge Program totals approximately $14.0 million and is funded through a combination of federal and County funding. This funding is supplemented by leveraging community-based organization funds (private and federal) in addition to their Consolidated Community Funding Pool (CCFP) funding. This support is facilitated through the County and nonprofit partnership model that existed pre-COVID-19.
It is important to note that pre-pandemic, all rental and transitional housing assistance funded through CCFP totaled approximately $4.0 million. It is understood that post-pandemic funding needs will significantly exceed that amount, and the ERA Bridge Program provides time and space to evaluate future funding level needs.
This year’s point-in-time count — an annual count of individuals in shelters, transitional housing, and experiencing unsheltered homelessness — found 1,310 people experiencing homelessness in Fairfax County.
That’s a 10% increase (119 people) over the previous year, when a slight drop was reported. Around 30% of those were adults experiencing chronic homelessness.
The survey found that 87 households said they were fleeing domestic violence and 229 households reported a history of domestic violence, according to Fairfax County.
This year’s count follows a recent trend of homelessness increasing again after years of decline throughout the D.C. region.
“After a steady reduction of people experiencing homelessness on the night of the Point-in-Time Counts between the 2008 and 2017, a decrease of 47 percent (871 people),” the county said on the Point-in-Time report. “The number of people experiencing homelessness identified through the counts increased 27 percent (258 people) between 2017 and 2021 and then decreased 3 percent (31 people) in 2022.”
In particular, the report says there’s been a notable increase in families with children facing homelessness:
The number of people in families with children experiencing homelessness increased by 33 percent (188 people) between the 2022 and 2023 counts. This increase is primarily attributed to the multiple negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families in terms of health, employment, and inflationary costs, especially for housing. Meanwhile, the number of single adults experiencing homelessness decreased by 11 percent (71 people) during the same time.
As with the previous year, the report noted that people who identify as Black or African American are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness in Fairfax County:
The most significant disparity in the demographics of those experiencing homelessness on the night of the 2023 Point-in-Time Count remains the disproportionate representation of people identifying as Black or African American. While 10.8 percent of the general population in Fairfax County is estimated to identify as Black or African American , 48 percent of people experiencing homelessness on the night of the count identified as Black or African American. The imbalance slightly improved from the 2022 count, when 50 percent of people identified as Black or African.
Fairfax County hopes to make use of American Rescue Plan funding to help provide housing for some of those most in need.
In a meeting of the Board of Supervisors Housing Committee last week, staff from the Department of Housing and Community Development said a tranche of federal funding could help local residents in more extreme levels of poverty than most affordable housing programs in the county assist.
“This is a rare funding opportunity specifically targeted to reducing homelessness and can serve populations at the extreme low end of the spectrum,” said Thomas Barnett, deputy director of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “This provides not just housing, but money for supportive services that we know people need.”
Fairfax County was awarded $7.88 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
According to the presentation to the committee:
HOME-ARP funds must be used to primarily benefit individuals or families from the following qualifying populations:
- At risk of homelessness
- Those fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking
- Other families requiring services or housing assistance to prevent homelessness
- Households at greatest risk of housing instability
Barnett said there are around 88 permanent supportive housing projects in the pipeline that the nearly $8 million in federal funding could go toward. The funding comes as Fairfax County deals with an uptick in people experiencing homelessness, caused in large part by the pandemic and related economic turmoil.
“Chronic homelessness has increased disproportionately during the pandemic,” Barnett said. “[It’s] up 34% in the last 5 years.”
Even within that category, some supervisors said they’d like to see funding targeted specifically on addressing youth homelessness. The most recent Point-in-Time Count — a survey of people experiencing homelessness in the span of one night — found 91 people between the ages of 18-24 experiencing homelessness in Fairfax County.
“We have, as you point out, a rare funding opportunity with a big infusion of funds,” Board Chairman Jeff McKay said. “I’m still troubled by, when we get that Point-in-Time Count, that homeless youth count…I would like more information coming back as to what strategies we might employ to help with that, to use this rare opportunity funding to solve what we know is always a difficult thing to work with under normal circumstances, can any of this be used to accelerate that.”
The proposal would allow unused commercial spaces, including office and hotel space, to be used as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness.
The new zoning would let private entities — namely nonprofits that work with those experiencing homelessness — operate emergency shelters in vacant or underutilized commercial or industrial properties.
“Special exception use would permit repurposing of a commercial building in a commercial, Industrial, or in some Planned Districts with approval by the Board,” a staff report on the change said. “Commercial building includes buildings designed or used for office, hotel, retail, institutional, or industrial purposes.”
In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors housing committee on Nov. 22, staff said there is currently no “emergency shelter” use in the county zoning code.
In addition to creating an emergency shelter use, the zoning change would add a “permanent supportive housing” use for housing that provides assistance and supportive services, like transportation and training, to residents. Supportive housing is reserved in the zoning ordinance for those making below 60% of the area median income.
The presentation didn’t include information on incentives to get private property owners to open their space up for use used as emergency shelter, but board members still expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
“We’ve had similar conversations to this before, but I think we’re in a different situation right now,” said County Board Chair Jeff McKay, “not only with what we know about homelessness but that we also, unfortunately, have a higher number of vacancies because of Covid. I think it’s time to have a conversation about adaptive reuse.”
The proposed changes are part of a general push by the county to reevaluate how it tackles homelessness, particularly by increasing the availability of permanent and supportive housing instead of relying on temporary shelters.
The last point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 26, found 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in the county, a decrease from 2021 but higher than the numbers reported in the most recent years preceding the pandemic. About 50% of the individuals counted were Black, even though only 10% of the county’s population falls in that demographic.
During the initial months of the pandemic, the county enlisted hotels as temporary shelter for individuals who were experiencing homelessness or otherwise lacked space needed for isolating or quarantining due to Covid.
Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) A demonstration that brought tents to the North County Government Center in a push for more supportive housing in Reston has come to a close after the final tent was officially removed late last week.
Reston Strong, the nonprofit organization behind the protest to increase Fairfax County’s affordable housing stock, announced that the last tent in front of Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn’s office was removed after it was first installed on April 4.
The woman living in the tent was moved into permanent supportive housing with access to other services, Reston Strong announced on Thursday (Oct. 13).
The announcement culminates the group’s Neighbors in Tents campaign, which aims to address homelessness in the county.
The organization says that more than 20 tents across four sites still remain in Reston.
“The largest encampment is home to individuals who were also displaced in the spring when hypothermia shelters closed,” Reston Strong wrote in a statement. “Several are women, elderly, and LGBTQ+ who are still waiting on housing. The crisis is far from over but for today we celebrate, for tonight one of our beloved unhoused neighbors will sleep in her own bed, in her own room, in her own apartment.”
When asked for comment, Alcorn’s office deferred to the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development.
Ben Boxer, a spokesperson for the department, lauded community partners for their efforts to eradicate homelessness in the county:
All of our Fairfax County shelters are open, and we encourage anyone who is experiencing homelessness to please contact or visit us at these locations where they may obtain food, showers, laundry, counseling, and other assistance to help them meet their basic needs. We also have experienced and knowledgeable individuals at these locations working to create housing plans to meet the individual preferences and needs of our guests. Additionally, we are actively preparing for our upcoming Hypothermia Prevention Program season, beginning December 1, which provides added capacity to ensure that no one has to sleep outside this winter.
With the D.C. area’s summer heat in full swing, local organizers worry that there are too few options for unhoused residents in the county to cool down.
“Summer temperatures and storm frequencies are increasing due to climate change, thus homeless people are at greater risk of health impacts and even death,” says the resolution approved by the civil rights organization’s executive committee on July 28.
Potential solutions proposed by the resolution include a pilot program like D.C.’s heat emergency plan, better communication of hours and locations for the county’s cooling centers, vouchers to families for motel rooms, and distributions of water bottles, personal fans, and sunscreen at government centers.
The Fairfax NAACP general membership unanimously approved a resolution to work with the county to enhance heat relief services to homeless residents in August. At NAACP's request, an assessment of current heat emergency plans will be conducted. Full text: https://t.co/NhVrgAvslF pic.twitter.com/eBekzJr1uu
— Fairfax County NAACP (@FairfaxNAACP) July 29, 2022
In response to the resolution, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee directed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide the county’s current heat emergency plan.
In a memo dated July 29, DHHS listed a number of options available for cooling down. It also agreed to “enhance our efforts” and enact more “immediate action” for the county’s unhoused residents in need of relief from the August heat and humidity:
This work includes addressing transportation access gaps, evaluating both the variety and coordination of supply disbursements (both direct provision and at our cooling sites), considering the use of hotel vouchers in the event overflow shelters are at capacity, and providing a more robust communications plan as well as additional opportunities to provide direct communication outreach to individuals in need.
Additionally, NAACP officials tell FFXnow that a committee will meet tomorrow (Aug. 12) to discuss more solutions and ways to better help those in need.
Mary Paden, who chairs the NAACP’s Fair and Affordable Housing Committee, says she’s encouraged by the county’s willingness to listen and work with the group. But action needs to happen now, considering there are likely plenty of very hot days still left in the summer.
“Many [unhoused residents] are older and sick and are more affected by the heat than a younger, healthier person,” Paden said. “It took deaths for the hypothermia program to get set up in the winter…and you wonder if we have to wait for a death to get really serious about taking care of people in the heat.” Read More
On Tuesday, the organization marked the 100th day of unhoused residents staying in a temporary tent community in front of the North County Government building. The tents were set up this spring as an alternative after the county’s hypothermia and COVID-19 emergency shelters wound down.
“Tents were not what Reston Strong wanted. They were a temporary solution in the absence of a governmental one,” organizers said.
Organizers say they are still waiting for permanent solutions, including a mobile mental health crisis unit in Reston and changes to the county’s zoning ordinance that would allow temporary transitional housing as a by-right use in empty commercial buildings and spaces.
In a symbolic gesture, the group installed 100 black flags around the center and delivered funeral wreaths with 100 black roses to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn.
Now, with temperatures rising, Reston Strong is asking the county to provide 24-hour cooling centers and access to drinking water for individuals in the temporary tents.
In a statement to FFXnow, Alcorn noted that discussion on the issue has been ongoing for several years.
“This is not a new challenge for Reston and Fairfax County and I am committed to seeking long-term solutions,” Alcorn wrote in a statement.
In April, Alcorn directed the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness to review the current performance of the county and nonprofit service providers. He asked staff to update the county’s homelessness strategies in coordination with the Affordable Housing Advisory Council.
He also set a goal of adding 1,000 affordable housing units in the Hunter Mill District by the end of 2027.
“Everyone in our community, regardless of circumstances, deserved to be treated with respect and humanity,” Reston Strong organizers wrote.
Fairfax County is looking for more ways to bring more people into supportive and permanent housing beyond what some consider the band-aid approach to tackling homelessness — temporary shelters.
At a meeting yesterday (Tuesday), the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously moved a board matter directing staff to complete a comprehensive evaluation of ways to boost supportive housing, the evaluation of current options, and protocol for emergency shelter in commercial and industrial districts.
The matter was jointly collaborated on by Chairman Jeff McKay and supervisors John Foust, Walter Alcorn, Rodney Lusk, and Dalia Palchik. Foust led the motion.
Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross cautioned the board to consider that policy changes can only go so far in implementing goals.
“We really need to make sure we recognize that policies can only be so good as the people who are actually trying to implement them too,” Gross said.
Foust acknowledged that the county’s work relies heavily on support for external partners and nonprofit organizations. He also noted that the policy directive encourages county staff to examine resources overall.
“So much of what we do in that arena is through the nonprofits and we need to look at that specifically,” Foust said.
There are currently 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in Fairfax County, per a Point in Time count calculated by the county. 282 adults are experiencing chronic homelessness, and 50% of those counted identified as Black or African American, even though that demographic makes up just 10% of the county’s general population.
The board matter specifically delves into the county’s Quarantine, Protection, Isolation/Decompression (QPID) hotels program, which was created to provide emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was run in addition to the county’s hypothermia program, which operates every winter.
This year, the end of both programs raised red flags about the chronic issues of lack of emergency shelter and permanent housing. QPID ended in March.
While supportive options are available in the county, many find themselves unsheltered until a shelter bed or housing becomes available, the board matter said:
Given the shortage of shelter beds and housing, individuals may be unsheltered and unhoused between hypothermia prevention seasons. These individuals can wind up sleeping in cars, at bus shelters, in tents in the woods, and in other outdoor places. They often sleep near the County’s homeless shelters so they can access services such as meals, bathrooms and showering, laundry, and outreach/case worker assistance.
The county has been working on the issue for years. In April, Alcorn directed the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness to review the county’s current operational performance in its effort to prevent and end homelessness.
The latest board matter directs staff to do the following:
Evaluate the successes and challenges experienced with QPID, including costs, operations, and results, and including how QPID compares with the success of the County’s established use of hotel rooms as temporary shelter for qualifying unhoused families.
Identify site-specific options for the development of more permanent supportive housing, with a focus on creative solutions for the long-term housing and service needs of the homeless population.
Review current zoning requirements and allowances for emergency shelter in commercial and
industrial districts where vacant and underutilized properties might be used by private entities to provide sheltering and transitional services to the homeless population and include this issue as a possible addition to the Zoning Ordinance work program for the Board’s consideration.
Provide an analysis of other available options that are not currently being used to address
homelessness in the County, including costs and benefits of each, and provide recommendations for the Board’s consideration. This analysis should include a review of successful efforts that have been implemented in other jurisdictions.
Ensure that the county’s partners in addressing homelessness have an opportunity to provide input to staff regarding matters addressed herein, including the operational review requested in the April 12 board matter.
Staff will present findings and recommendations at the board’s housing committee meeting on Nov. 22.
Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday (May 10) to allow time for a homeless shelter replacement proposal to come to fruition, extending a review period to Aug. 10.
The capital project will transform the 9,500-square-foot Patrick Henry Family Shelter in Seven Corners to a new 24,000-square-foot permanent supportive housing facility with 16 units and a multipurpose room.
The extension of the 2232 review, which is required for proposed public facility projects, will give the county more time to acquire land rights needed for construction, according to Department of Public Works and Environmental Services spokesperson Sharon North.
“This complex land acquisition is necessary to receive all zoning and permitting approvals for the project,” North said. “As a result, the project schedule has been extended beyond what was originally anticipated.”
The building at 3080 Patrick Henry Drive is part of the Hollybrooke II Condominium complex, which was originally built as apartments in 1952. The county bought the building in 1985 and converted its 10 units into emergency housing shelter.
The units were expanded into the current shelter in 1996 and 2006.
Per a March application on the new project:
The existing structure is in poor condition, not code compliant, has multiple accessibility barriers and does not meet the program change to permanent supportive housing units. There is a critical lack of permanent supportive housing to serve the County’s homeless population. Studies show that no other method is proven more effective than supportive housing for ending chronic homelessness.
The new facility will be four stories and have five 2-bedroom units, eight 3-bedroom units, and three 4-bedroom units to continue serving large families experiencing homelessness.
While the Board of Supervisors owns the existing building, which will be demolished, the surrounding land and parking areas are controlled by the Hollybrooke II Condominium Association.
“For that reason, the [board] must obtain land rights in order to commence construction of the project,” North said. “With final approvals and purchase, the separation and ownership will transfer to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.”
The project is currently being reviewed by the county’s land development and planning staff. North says approvals from both departments are expected to come late this year.
Voters approved $48 million in bond money for the project and three other shelters in 2016. Those include the Embry Rucker Shelter in Reston, a joint fire station and Eleanor Kennedy Shelter relocation project in Penn Daw, and the Bailey’s Crossroads facility that opened in 2019.
The county has been working to increase its permanent housing assistance, making 1,645 beds available this year — a 12% increase from last year, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual Point-in-Time count released May 4.